Twelve Things To Know About The U-2

By Eric Hehs Posted 13 September 2014

1. Name

The official US Air Force name for the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft is Dragon Lady. This appellation can be traced to the Milton Caniff-drawn cartoon strip Terry and the Pirates that originated in the 1930s. The aircraft is often called Deuce and The Article by pilots. It has also been called Angel.

2. Basics

Empty weight: 17,000 pounds

Takeoff weight: 40,000 pounds

Wingspan: 103 feet

Length: 63 feet

Height: 16 feet (from ground to tip of tail)

Cruise speed: 475 miles per hour

Payload: 5,000 pounds; available space: 310 cubic feet

Flight endurance: twelve hours (as determined by pilot duty day)

Range: greater than 6,000 nautical miles

Engine/Thrust: General Electric F118-GE-110/17,000 pounds

3. Operating Locations

Beale AFB, California (1st Reconnaissance Squadron: pilot and maintenance training; 99th Reconnaissance Squadron); South Korea (5th Reconnaissance Squadron; Cyprus (eastern Mediterranean region); Southwest Asia (99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron); Palmdale, California (flight test, upgrades, and programmed depot maintenance).

4. Operational Airframes

Thirty-four, including five two-seat trainers and two ER-2s operated by NASA.

5. Service Life

Most of the current fleet of U-2s was built in the late 1980s. The fleet has about eighty percent of its service life remaining.

6. Sensors, Communication, And Protection

The aircraft gathers imagery in a number of ways, including through digital imagery, radar imagery, and traditional wet-processed film. Similarly the U-2 collects signals intelligence in various frequency bands with a variety of sensors. Datalinks on the aircraft allow for immediate transmission of sensor data. The U-2 carries an electronic countermeasure system for self-defense.

7. Sensor Locations

The aircraft features an interchangeable nose and various bays in the fuselage for carrying sensors. The aircraft can also carry two large wing-mounted pods, called superpods, and an upper fuselage pod.

8. Significant Upgrades

General Electric F118 turbofan engine (1994); Raytheon Remote Airborne Sensor, or RAS-1R, a radio frequency signals intelligence sensor (2001); Glass cockpit (2003); BAE AN/ALQ 221 defensive suite (2005); nose-mounted Raytheon Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System, known as ASARS-2A (2005); Dual Datalink 2 (2005); Power Upgrade (2006); Northrop Grumman AN/ASQ-230 radio frequency signals intelligence suite (2008); Cockpit Altitude Reduction Effort, or CARE (2013); United Technologies Aerospace Systems Senior Year Electro-Optical Reconnaissance System, or SYERS-2C (2014)

9. Maximum Altitude And Attaining It

The exact maximum altitude of the U-2 remains somewhat sensitive, though the US Air Force advertises the maximum altitude as 70,000+ feet. The amount of time the U-2 requires to attain initial altitude is one of its most impressive characteristics. The aircraft can climb to its initial operating altitude of 60,000 feet in about one hour.

10. Pressure Suit

The full-pressure suit, called the S1034, acts as a back-up cockpit for the pilot. The suit protects pilots from decompression sickness while they are flying or if they must eject at high altitudes. The suit inflates automatically to three and a half pounds per square inch and supplies 100 percent oxygen to the pilot when it senses a loss of cabin pressure.

11. Takeoffs And Landings

The aircraft has bicycle-style gear in the fuselage. Small wheels on a flexible shaft called pogos are attached on the wings for taxiing and takeoffs. The pogos fall off the aircraft just after the aircraft lifts off the ground. They are reattached to the wings by a ground crew after the aircraft lands. With its glider-like wing, the U-2 wants to fly. So landings are essentially controlled stalls. During landings, the aircraft is routinely chased on the runway by another U-2 pilot driving a high-performance vehicle, such as a Chevrolet Camaro. The U-2 pilot driving the chase car communicates the height above ground so the pilot in the U-2 knows when to set the aircraft down.

12. Lesser-Known Missions

The U-2 provides peacetime reconnaissance in support of disaster relief from floods, earthquakes, and forest fires. It also supports search and rescue operations. The NASA ER-2 performs atmospheric studies.

Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One.